Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History
Feeling Backward is a brilliant book that attempts the “impossible” and succeeds. Using Michel Foucault and Eve Sedgwick as theoretical touchstones, and incorporating Raymond Williams’s “structures of feeling,” Heather Love “feels backward” to reimagine and connect with aspects of a queer past that had been rendered invisible. In doing so—in risking (as she puts it) the fate of Lot’s wife in turning back to revisit a painful past—she embraces the ruins, the “fugitive dead,” the loneliness and failures and all the “negative affect” that need to be reclaimed as part of that history.
She invokes José Esteban Muñoz’s idea of a “gay shame day parade” to help insist, in her reconception of queer history, on those aspects of queer experience otherwise rendered too painful, too unhelpful, too outside the margins of “modern gay identity.” All of the literary figures she chooses to exemplify her project are liminal, largely rejected as part of gay historiography as it has been constructed since the early 1990s. And yet it is figures as diverse and complex as Walter Pater, Willa Cather, and Radclyffe Hall that provide Love with opportunities for “emotional rescue.” She dismisses the ancient admonitions against personal involvement with historical subjects and seeks passionately the play of recognition she feels in the struggles of these figures and their often subtle and disguised “queer performativity,” to use Sedgwick’s term.
Cather is one of those authors who, like Love herself, reaches into the past for a sense of community and identity and yet who does so with great ambivalence and a complicated pathos concerning her own gender and sexual identity. It is precisely that ambivalence—and the loneliness and melancholia it stirs—that need to be understood and confronted.
Another object for reclamation in the backward march is romantic friendship or, more generally, the examination of a mode of intimacy that has remained relatively free of stigma and yet contains much of the erotic and social connection between same-sex people that also needs to be included in queer historiography. And yet the indeterminacy of the term and its historical ambiguity renders it a kind of shadowy and poorly understood phenomenon in literature and history.
Queer theory has challenged the categories of sexual identity, even the notion of identity itself. As Love reminds us, so many have felt left out of the categories which were designed, in part, to help forge the sorts of connection and recognition, current and historical, that Love sees as desirable in our backward reach. The troubled, the alienated, the stigmatized, the personal catastrophes are a necessary part of queer history, as traumatizing as that history can be. Love moves bravely backwards to that murky time, the “queer life before Stonewall,” and then crosses the modernist line backwards to feel what has been lost. In doing so she has made a profoundly imaginative and powerful contribution to queer history, and yet her book remains reasonably accessible to those with some background in queer theory and literature.